The view from the top of the Empire State Building is more spectacular when you skip the elevator, says Sally Kalksma, who races up skyscrapers in a little-known sport known as "tower running," or competitive stair climbing.
"The high you get from doing this, when you look down from waaaaay up there, and you say, "'Wow, I just did this,' well, it's just amazing," said Kalksma. The Pine Beach, N.J., woman has made five ascents of the Empire State Building to its observatory, starting in 2012. Her fastest time up the 1,576 steps? 18 minutes.
The climbs begin with a chaotic free-for-all in a dusty stairwell where about 20 competitors wait for the "Go!" and then begin elbowing each other on the way up, she said.
Kalksma, who has battled multiple myeloma, now has her eye on the iconic winding metal staircase of the Eiffel Tower, one of hundreds of skyscrapers and towers across the world open to stair climbers.
With more than 50 competitive stair climbs behind her, Kalksma, 55, will be the only American in that invitation-only race in Paris on March 15, 2018. She will compete with 39 other ranked climbers in the race, which will be held at night, under the tower's sparkling lights.
Kalksma, mother of three grown children, previously organized 5-K races at the Jersey Shore. She began stair climbing nine years ago, soon after she was diagnosed with cancer of the blood. A few months later she lost her husband to melanoma.
"I took my anger out on the stairs," she said.
Thousands and thousands of stairs.
"When I think I can't go on, I just do," she said, saying she has never quit a stair climb mid-tower.
"It's all mental. … I swear a lot and talk to myself, and I think of the people who want me to succeed and the ones who don't, and I keep climbing," she said.
Vertical racing tests her grit, her ability to overcome burning lungs, aching leg muscles, and exhaustion. "It's not fun, but the high you get from it lasts a week," she said with a big grin.
The Towerrunning World Association says the sport is gaining in popularity. Races are held at about 250 towers, skyscrapers, and outdoor stadiums in 55 countries. More than 140,000 athletes participate, according to its website.
Michael Reichetzeder, the association's founder and sports director, said interest has been stoked by charities that use stair climbing races as fundraisers. Runners and marathon racers have discovered stair climbing is better for their knees and have joined in, he said.
Another reason? "It's the fastest way to make altitude. People always want to go up, and to the highest point. And you get to learn some exciting buildings," he said.
Unlike at the Empire State Building, most of the contests stagger the racers at the start, allowing one to go up at a time every three or 10 or 20 seconds.
Reichetzeder met Kalksma at the 103-story Willis Skyrise Tower in Chicago two years ago. "She's an amazing person and is very competitive," he said. She was ranked 27th worldwide in the women's division then, he said.
Last year, Kalksma had to drop out to undergo chemotherapy and prepare for a stem cell transplant. "I'm in complete remission," she said last week. She said she is writing a book on stair climbing and beating adversity. It will be called Life Gets in the Way.
Edward Stadtmauer, her hematologist oncologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said he doesn't discourage her from stair climbing. "Just her spirit and energy and zest for life are so important, her ability to go through all the things she has gone through. Being fit and active allows her to heal and get better faster than the average person," he said.
Linda Schlachter, Kalksma's college roommate at Rowan University, has done about 15 tower runs. She said Kalksma talked her into taking up the sport a few years ago: "People love to climb with Sally because she's so enthusiastic."
About a week after she returns from Paris, Kalksma plans to scale the 53-story Comcast building in Philadelphia. Previously, at the 54-story BNY Mellon Center, she said, she won first place medals in the women's division three years in a row, starting in 2013, raising money for Special Olympics. Elsewhere, she has raised funds for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and other charities.
David Hanley, who heads the U.S.A. Stair Climbing Association, said Kalksma was ranked 13th among U.S. women at the end of 2016. She is among the 40,000 stair climbers who participate in at least one race a year inside buildings across the country.
"The sport has grown very rapidly, and although there are no dependable statistics, the number of venues has doubled in the last 10 years, and the attendance at existing races has grown radically," he said in an email.
Helping generate interest in the sport are the Tunnel to Tower races in New York, he said. In those races, firefighters in full gear race or walk through the Brooklyn Tunnel and then head up one of the city's towers, to honor firefighters who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Kalksma said one firefighter dared her to put on his gear and climb with it at one of the tower runs in New York. "I only went a couple of flights and that was enough," she said, laughing.
To train for climbs, Kalksma runs up a five-story parking garage stairway adjacent to the Ocean County Board of Elections in Toms River, where she works. Her job is to match motor vehicle records to voter registration records. She also helps with recounts.
Twice a day – on her lunch hour and after work – she puts on her blue sneakers and flies up these stairs again and again, taking the elevator down each time to protect her knees. She's recruited co-workers to join her on occasion. The team's name? The Recounts.
At the garage last week, Kalksma demonstrated her techniques. "Sometimes I fling myself up using the handrails. … Sometimes I sprint up, using no hands," she said. Usually she takes two steps at a time.
Before each race, she listens to the Rolling Stones "to get that killer instinct going." A tiny pearl angel pin, given to her by a co-worker whose grandmother owned it, helps her "fly up" each tower, she said.
She doesn't pace herself or calculate how to approach each run.
Her only strategy? "Get to the top," she said. "Don't stop."